On a sunny day one February, I got a ticket to a room laying out the timeline of Vogue and its defining issues every era since its creation. Every era since its inception had own section, demonstrating the shift in creative journalism, photography and overall vision of the decade.
Art and creativity also seem to do their best work in time of terror, as a form of escapism, I suppose. My personal favourite quote from the show shows the juxtaposition Vogue found itself during the 1930s, from society commentator John McMullin after a visit to Berlin—“Why all this fuss about Hitler? No one could be more commonplace—I am told he represents and idea, but I can’t find out what.” But even when his idea became clear in the 40s, Vogue trudged on doggedly, with the likes of Cecil Beaton and Lee Miller documenting Britain’s darkest hour, as it were, from their own perspectives. Elizabeth “Lee” Miller, an American war correspondent and official war photographer, documented the “Women’s War”, the Blitz, and the horror of the Nazi concentration camps. As Hitler did his work, so did Vogue, covering the likes of the Blitz and the horror of Hitler’s work alongside wartime picture stories by Beaton on London bombsites with the caption, “Fashion is indestructible.” What struck me the most was the distinct “Vogueness” of it all—today it would almost be blasé, to have a well dressed woman posing in the middle of a demolished road, but at the time, the need to look past the horror and the tenacious need for survival was well documented and understood.
In June 2011, the Road to Revolution by Rana Kabbini detailed the writers’ feelings of being an Arab in a time of regional change, and Paolo Roversi took to abate the pains of the Japanese tsunami with his shoot Neo Geisha. In 2012 a controversial Boris Johnson posed in a controversial Olympic Park construction site. By then, Patrick Demarchelier had documented the Princess of Wales in December 1990, the Iron Lady had been photographed and profiled in the same decade as Claudia Schiffer and Cindy Crawford, Vogue had made legends out of David Bailey and Grace Coddington and Kate Moss had solidified her status as the eternal London It Girl.
The artistic direction also changes with the times. I noticed the covers used to be handpainted and drawn, but from the 1970s the photographic covers that we know today started to take over. I found the cover illustrations to be illuminating, detailed and intricate, something which isn’t as obvious in the photographic covers as I find them more sanitised and alike, especially within the last few years. It’s a loss that present day magazines of such calibre can sometimes resemble a slightly more expensive tabloid, and the showcase made me appreciate the artistic direction when the camera was still a luxury.
The exhibition is more than just a showcase of what the Condé Nast archives has to offer, but a jarring realisation as to why we even bother to put up with this frivolity in the first place—it is a glimpse into the trials and culture of our contemporaries while recognising that in times of despair, in the words of Norman Parkinson—“people want style. They need romance.”
From teaching its readers the social graces of the 30s to jumpstarting the careers of fashionable modern designers to its patchwork quilt of long-form journalism on pressing issues, the show is more than just about fashion. Its about photographers, creators, designers, haute couture, photojournalists and the women (or men) that define our eras and those in history.
There is no doubt that whether you love it or hate it, the influence and mystery of the magazine and its editors has seceeded generations. In the last hundred years or so since Vogue debuted, it has always been at the forefront of art, introducing the world to the likes of Picasso and Sonia Delaunay. In 1916, Virginia Woolf commented on the letters of the navigator and professor, Walter Raleigh, and last April, Christiane Amanpour’s interview graced its pages. From Naomi Campbell to Cara Delevingne, it has defined the names and designs for my mother and her generation, to mine. Whether or not it will make its mark in the lives of my children is yet to be seen, but its place in history has already been set in stone.
"... If she guesses right, she is a gentleman and a scholar..... If you mistake Quentin Latour for Fantin Latour, you can laugh it off; but God help you if you cannot tell Brawue from Brook. If she is wrong, her cultural standing is usually impaired"
Location: National Portrait Gallery
Duration: 11 Feb-22 May